Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Should the Wall Street Journal Cover Golf?

This blog has been critical of the Wall Street Journal's (WSJ) golf columns.  John Paul Newport, the Journal's first golf columnist, was low hanging fruit. His columns were often fatuous (see his column on a day with Donald Trump) and frequently filled with errors.  Newport was replaced by Brian Costa, but it would be hard to notice any change unless you read the byline.  In Costa's latest column (Patrick Reed Wins the Masters, April 9, 2018), he writes:

Fowler added more late pressure to Reed by making a birdie on the 17th hole to cut his lead to one. 

In fact, Fowler made a birdie on the 18th hole not the 17th hole.  How do such errors get by the editors?  An examination of how a previous error was treated by the staff at the WSJ provides a clue.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently ran an article that referred to Tony Romo as having a 0.3 Handicap.  Of course no one has a 0.3 "handicap," but it was a small error and not worthy of correction. The next day, however, the WSJ ran a correction that noted  Romo actually had a +0.3 handicap and not a 0.3 handicap. If the WSJ bothers to make a correction, it should get it right.  I sent the following correction to the editor at the WSJ:

Your correction is still in error.  Tony Romo has a +0.3 Handicap Index not a +0.3 Handicap.  A player's Course Handicap is determined by multiplying his Index by the Course Slope Rating/113 and rounding the product to the nearest integer.  A player's handicap is always an integer.  Your golf writer should have known this.  

I expected the WSJ to acknowledge the error and pledge not to do it again.  Instead, the editor (Tim Carroll) defended the error with rather curious reasoning:

Thank you for your email.

While the term "handicap index" is the one used by the USGA and in the exacting Rules of Golf, it is not the term in general use. In 50 years of playing golf, including with many USGA officials, I am not sure anyone has ever asked me on the first tee for my "handicap index."

The Wall Street Journal writes for that general readership and we feel that by using the technical term we could be raising more questions than answering in readers' minds. (Note: When Carroll writes "that general readership" he implies there is more than one general readership. Apparently, he does not do a careful edit of his own writings.)

The first problem with the response is the term "Handicap Index" does not appear in the Rules of Golf as the editor states. (Perhaps his fact-checker was on vacation). The term Index is also not so arcane that it is use is restricted to the USGA.  If you enter any tournament, the tournament committee will ask for your Handicap Index and not your Handicap. Every player should know his or her Handicap Index which is the measure of a player's ability and is necessary to calculate his Course Handicap. 

The fact the editor has played with USGA officials is supposed to lend credibility to his argument, but only demonstrates an unbecoming degree of pomposity.   The editor is probably right that no one has asked for his handicap index in 50 years.  There are two possible reasons for this.  First, for the first 19 years of his playing career there was no Slope System and hence no Handicap Index. Second, his playing partners probably assumed the editor checked his Handicap Index and calculated his Course Handicap before coming to the first tee.

The editor's last defense is  WSJ readers lack the sophistication to understand the nuances of the handicap system.  That argument could be used if the article was about Bitcoin and blockchain technology.  Since the error in question appeared in the WSJ's golf column, it is probable most readers were golfers and familiar with the term Handicap Index. To dumb down the article was not necessary, but it was condescending.

The probable cause of the many errors in the golf columns is that the editors lack sufficient knowledge to do their job well.  Can you imagine Golfweek, Golf Digest, or Links getting mixed up about which hole was birdied?  If the WSJ is going to write about golf it should concentrate on what it knows best, the financial side. If it is merely going to report who won and regurgitate remarks from the press briefing, it is a waste of the WSJ's unique talent. 


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